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Corporate Welfare

With Wilder out of the race, the once-divided business community is flexing its muscle - again.

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The city's most significant mayoral election in 50 years is barely under way, but perhaps the most important meet-and-greet that took place last week wasn't at Plant Zero, where the five candidates took their first questions from the public.

It was at the stately old brownstone at 401 W. Franklin St., at the Commonwealth Club, where mayoral hopeful and well-known attorney Robert Grey was rustling up support from more than two dozen of the city's most powerful business leaders.

He was there to garner support (read: solicit checks) in an effort to win the first big battle in the run-up to the election: to have the biggest war chest by June 30, the first campaign finance reporting deadline.

If Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's first term in office led to division within the business community Ar???VbCrLf remember WilderAr??•s Ar??�Ýquot;He doesnAr??•t own meAr??VbCrLf message to UkropAr??•s Chairman James E. Ukrop in 2005? Ar???VbCrLf Grey represents the dawning of a new era in corporate unity.

Ar??�Ýquot;ThereAr??•s been a long tradition in this city of the leaders of the major corporations in this city working together in the political arena,Ar??VbCrLf says University of Richmond professor John Moeser, a frequent commentator on city politics and one of the architects of the cityAr??•s elected-mayor system. Moeser suggests that Ar??�Ýquot;there seems to be an alignment of the Fortune 500s around Grey.Ar??VbCrLf

That alignment, depending on whom you ask, may be a unified goal, or it may be the desire of a handful of corporate-bred civic boosters who are pushing their colleagues to lend support. But regardless of who calls the shots at the Commonwealth Club, who will make the decisions in the voting booth this fall is a far more complex matter.

Grey may be the hand-picked successor, but heAr??•s by no means a sure bet.

Ar??�Ýquot;You have Ukrop, who is driving hard for Robert Grey, and [CCA Industries Chairman] Bill Goodwin driving hard for Robert Grey and [Dominion Power chief] Tom Farrell,Ar??VbCrLf says one corporate insider, speaking anonymously. Ar??�Ýquot;ItAr??•s really about the social or cultural standards of Richmond at that level providing for no disagreement. It really calls for folks to fall in line. If itAr??•s OK with Bill and Jim and Tom, itAr??•s OK with us.Ar??VbCrLf

Proof of that lock-step agreement came last August when 26 of those corporate types Ar???VbCrLf now known collectively as the Gang of 26 Ar???VbCrLf signed their names to a letter calling for an end to elected school boards in the city. Grey was among the letterAr??•s signers, a fact many pundits see as among his biggest hurdles in gaining the trust of common voters.

Former Richmond CommonwealthAr??•s Attorney David Hicks calls the corporate communityAr??•s ability to make big waves a Ar??�Ýquot;Wizard of OzAr??VbCrLf effect: The public sees a big green head that makes big pronouncements, but how big is the body? WhatAr??•s behind the curtain?

Ar??�Ýquot;We help it out when we label it Ar??Eothe business community,Ar??•Ar??VbCrLf says Hicks, who ended his own mayoral bid this year before it even began and now supports Delegate Dwight C. Jones, his former pastor. Ar??�Ýquot;What if it turns out itAr??•s really only about seven people? And the other 19 only did what they were asked to do? I think the No. 1 thing that weAr??•ve got to check ourselves with is the categories we give.Ar??VbCrLf

Hicks was a tough critic last fall when the 26 signed the letter advocating an appointed school board. Ar??�Ýquot;I think weAr??•ve got to check ourselves when we call the Gang of 26 Ar??Eothe business community,Ar??•Ar??VbCrLf Hicks says. Indeed, at least one ranking business leader now agrees that the letter was Ar??�Ýquot;a big mistake.Ar??VbCrLf

Even as the power elites line up behind their friend, corporate lawyer and former American Bar Association President Grey, thereAr??•s another group of business leaders Ar???VbCrLf largely real estate developers Ar???VbCrLf who have yet to decide who to back for the mayorAr??•s office, suggest Hicks and other city political observers. This group has the strength in numbers lacking in the back room at the Commonwealth Club, but it doesnAr??•t have the dollars or the willingness to march lock step behind a single candidate so soon in the race.
ThereAr??•s a push-pull right now between the Fortune 500 business leadersAr??• vision of RichmondAr??•s future and the vision of the men and women who put together the bricks-and-mortar deals, agrees Moeser, and the cityAr??•s development and real estate community may have its own divergent goals this November.

The anonymous corporate insider also agrees: Ar??�Ýquot;With the exception of Ukrop, [corporate leaders] donAr??•t associate with the other group,Ar??VbCrLf he says. Ar??�Ýquot;In the real-world terms, on [Philip Morris Chief Executive] Mike SzymanczykAr??•s terms, he would tell you that [Wilton Cos. executives] Rich Johnson and Hank Wilton donAr??•t even exist. Ar??? These guys would be seen as bush league.Ar??VbCrLf

He sees a potential for a battle royale between the big money and the bush-leaguers: Ar??�Ýquot;ItAr??•s going to be a question of whoAr??•s got the most money and whoAr??•s got the most juice, and whoAr??•s got the most interest Ar???VbCrLf and who can sway the electorate.Ar??VbCrLf

Though certainly not representing himself as the voice of all developers, Robin Miller provides some insight into his peersAr??• concerns this fall.
Ar??�Ýquot;The things that need to continue to happen is we need to not do away with the goose that laid the golden egg,Ar??VbCrLf says Miller, who has made his name in revitalizing Manchester and who sees the cityAr??•s real-estate-tax abatement as critical to continued city improvement. Ar??�Ýquot;All mayoral candidates should support that.Ar??VbCrLf

Miller says heAr??•s undecided between the big three candidates.
Ar??�Ýquot;What I want to do is bring more people into downtown Richmond,Ar??VbCrLf he says.
A glimpse of the so-called bush-league developersAr??• current inclinations could be seen during City Council President William J. PanteleAr??•s mayoral announcement last month. What the room lacked in big names like Ukrop and Farrell, it had in spades with lawyers who represent the areaAr??•s real-estate and development interests.

Delegate Dwight Jones, declaring his own candidacy on the steps of City Hall, brought out similarly lower-wattage business star power, but both JonesAr??• and PanteleAr??•s backers carry the benefit of being a more in-the-trenches crowd. These leaders, says Moeser, are the ones who have consistently stayed involved in the city through the booms and the busts Ar???VbCrLf simply because itAr??•s the only game they have.
Ar??�Ýquot;What is worth pointing out, there was a period when the [corporate] business community just sort of opted out of the political process,Ar??VbCrLf Moeser says, pegging the turning point with the 2004 revision of the cityAr??•s charter and WilderAr??•s election.

Under the old system, Moeser says, Ar??�Ýquot;You didnAr??•t see the active participation of the largest corporations in the city, because they really could exert influence over, at best, three [City] Council districts. Unable to direct government as a whole, why bother?

Ar??�Ýquot;Now with a mayor that has considerable powers, weAr??•ve seen a re-emergence of the business community,Ar??VbCrLf he says.

During the referendum to change the charter, corporate leaders poured support behind the proposed change. They came forward again to back Wilder, who they believed would be a tool for cleaning up the city and pushing through pet projects such as the downtown performing arts center.
Mayor Wilder was a giant disappointment, says Terone Green, former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters. And the hope held by boosters like Ukrop and Farrell is that Grey will allow them to hit the reset button.

Ar??�Ýquot;From what I understand, theyAr??•re a little fed up with Wilder, but they still seem to think he has control of the black community,Ar??VbCrLf Green says.
ItAr??•s that control thatAr??•s going to matter most in November, all agree.

Who will win the allegiance of the cityAr??•s largest voting bloc? While thereAr??•s certain to be some wrestling over the cityAr??•s three most affluent West End districts, the biggest challenge is going to be wrangling votes in the six other districts, says Green, who sees this challenge as further evidence of the difference between the two business community camps. In that respect, Dwight Jones appears to be the man to beat. Pantele, who is white and a tireless grassroots campaigner, also shouldnAr??•t be discounted.

Grey, Green says, is the corporate communityAr??•s guy largely because they see the advantage of his skin color, but they have yet to fully recognize the handicap of his longtime withdrawal from RichmondAr??•s black community in which he was born and raised.
Like Green, Grey was once president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, but it was, says one longtime city political observer, an appointment engineered largely to keep the group in line during WilderAr??•s run for governor.

GreyAr??•s signing a letter calling for the disenfranchisement of voters could be a lead weight as he tries treading water.
Ar??�Ýquot;ThereAr??•s a whole group of people out there who he has to connect with and introduce himself to,Ar??VbCrLf agrees Antione Green, the current Crusade for Voters president, who confirms that Grey has begun making appearances at district meet-and-greets in an attempt to win black votes. Ar??�Ýquot;I think itAr??•s going to be an uphill challenge to get the CrusadeAr??•s endorsement, but a lot can change between now and the endorsement meeting.Ar??VbCrLf S

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